Understanding the Effects of Gender-Based Violence Across Health Areas

Women in solidarity for ending violence against women and girls
Written by: Danette Wilkins, Program Officer, Breakthrough ACTION

Observed every November 25, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women gives us an opportunity to take stock of the current state of violence against women and girls (VAWG) around the world. This includes the sobering reality that one in three women and girls experience physical or sexual violence in their lifetime, most often by an intimate partner.1 This number has remained largely unchanged for the last decade. During the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, all types of VAWG have intensified; this crisis is commonly referred to as the Shadow Pandemic.

Infographic illustrates how violence against women and girls has worsened during the pandemic.

The Shadow Pandemic: The isolation created by COVID-19 has resulted in the intensification of violence against women and girls. Source: UN Women

This day also kicks off the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence, an annual international campaign that concludes with Human Rights Day on December 10. Originally started by activists in the early 1990s to call for the prevention and elimination of VAWG, the 16 Days campaign continues to be relevant and necessary today. The prevalence and incidence of VAWG, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, creates a critical need for global health practitioners and researchers to ramp up efforts to understand and address the ways in which VAWG and other types of gender-based violence (GBV) overlap and intersect with other health areas. Much of the work done to date has focused on HIV/AIDS, with good reason. GBV puts women and girls at greater risk of HIV infection and complications through multiple pathways.2,3,4 At the same time, GBV has serious implications for other health areas as well.

Violence against women and girls (VAWG) is defined as any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual, or mental harm or suffering to women and girls, including threats of such acts, coercion, or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life. Violence against women and girls encompasses, but is not limited to, physical, sexual, and psychological violence occurring in the family or within the general community, and perpetrated or condoned by the State.

Gender-based violence (GBV) refers to harmful acts directed at an individual or a group of individuals based on their gender. It is rooted in gender inequality, the abuse of power and harmful norms. The term is primarily used to underscore the fact that structural, gender-based power differentials place women and girls at risk for multiple forms of violence. While women and girls suffer disproportionately from GBV, men and boys can also be targeted. The term is also sometimes used to describe targeted violence against LGBTQI+ populations, when referencing violence related to norms of masculinity/femininity and/or gender norms.

 Source: UN Women

In February 2021, Breakthrough ACTION hosted the expert consultation, Seeking Breakthroughs in Social and Behavior Change at the Intersection of Family Planning and Intimate Partner Violence, to advance understanding of the linkages between family planning (FP) and intimate partner violence (IPV).5 Such linkages include impacts on reproductive autonomy, pregnancy, childbearing decision-making, contraceptive preference, and contraceptive uptake and continuation. As we learn more about the linkages between FP and IPV, we also need to learn more about the pathways that account for these linkages.

To this end, an important recommendation emerged from this consultation to deepen thoughtful and intentional partnerships with survivors of violence who are experts by experience. We have a lot more to learn about the relationship between FP and IPV from survivors and their lived experience. What’s more, survivors possess critical knowledge and experiences regarding the relationship between violence and other health areas, including malaria, maternal and child health, neglected tropical diseases, and nutrition. Both a more comprehensive understanding and more holistic approach are needed to eliminate VAWG and other types of GBV, wherever they may appear.

The term survivor of violence refers to any person who has experienced sexual or gender-based violence. It is similar in meaning to “victim,” but is generally preferred because it implies resilience.

Source: UN Women


FP and IPV Interactive Online Feature

Technical Brief: English | French | Spanish

Consultation Materials

Consultation Videos


Frequently Asked Questions: Types of Violence Against Women and Girls

The Shadow Pandemic: Violence Against Women during COVID-19

Putting Women First: Ethical and Safety Recommendations for Research on Domestic Violence Against Women

Ethical Considerations for Research and Evaluation on Ending Violence Against Women and Girls


  1. World Health Organization. (2021). Violence Against Women Prevalence Estimates, 2018: Global, Regional and National Prevalence Estimates for Intimate Partner Violence Against Women and Global and Regional Prevalence Estimates for Non-Partner Sexual Violence Against Women. Geneva: World Health Organization. https://www.who.int/publications/i/item/9789240022256
  2. Ellsberg, M., & Betron, M. (2010). AIDSTAR-One Spotlight on Gender: Preventing gender-based violence and HIV: Lessons from the field. USAID. https://pdf.usaid.gov/pdf_docs/pnaea603.pdf
  3. Jewkes, R. K., Dunkle, K., Nduna, M., & Shai, N. (2010). Intimate partner violence, relationship power inequity, and incidence of HIV infection in young women in South Africa: a cohort study. Lancet, 376(9734), 41–48. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(10)60548-X
  4. Leddy, A. M., Weiss, E., Yam, E., & Pulerwitz, J. (2019). Gender-based violence and engagement in biomedical HIV prevention, care and treatment: A scoping review. BMC Public Health, 19, 897. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12889-019-7192-4
  5. Breakthrough ACTION. (2021). Family Planning and Intimate Partner Violence: An Intersection Deserving of More Attention. https://breakthroughactionandresearch.org/family-planning-and-intimate-partner-violence